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Twice a Year the City's Streets Blaze in a Golden Sunset

Text & Photos by Allan Weitz

One evening about 8 or 9 years ago I stepped out of the subway on 34th Street and found myself awash in rays of golden sunlight unlike anything I can recall seeing in all of my years of buzzing in and out of the City. The streets were literally awash in gold light, and every reflective surface in its path glowed likewise. And within a few minutes the 'event' was over. Not having a camera handy, I decided to come back the following evening to take a few photos of this dazzling display. The next day I showed up at the same time and same place, but despite the clear skies the big show of the previous evening was a no-show. Baffled, I headed back home.

I later learned I had witnessed an event that occurs only twice a year usually on May 28th and again on July 12th or 13th depending on the exact date of the summer solstice, and assuming it's not raining or cloudy. Commonly known as the Manhattan Solstice or Manhattanhenge (a tongue-in-cheek reference to England's legendary Stonehenge), this twice-a-year event marks the occasion of the sun setting in alignment with the 28.9 east-west axis of New York City's street grid, a system that was put into place back in 1811.

(Note- A reverse-oriented version of Manhattanhenge occurs at sunrise on December 5th and January 8th, depending on the exact date of the winter solstice.)

In anticipation of this year's Manhattan solstice we decided to sponsor a photography event open to anyone and everyone. Being a street event, we decided to have everyone meet on the corner of 34th Street and 5th Avenue at 7:45 on July 12th, which despite the record-breaking rainfall we've had as of late, turned out to be a gorgeous summer's eve.

Waiting for the show to begin

And our designated corner wasn't the only one buzzing with photographers. Walking over from Penn Station I saw camera-toting sunset-seekers lurking on every corner. One photographer managed to have W.33rd Street sealed off from 7th Avenue straight down to the river. And I couldn't help noticing the expressions on the faces of those not clued into the impending event as they stared dumbfounded at the legions of camera-toting lunatics (solatics?) prowling the streets.

Where you are during this event (which only lasts a few minutes) determines how the show plays out. If you're on the east side of town, the sun slowly comes into view from the west until it literally sits on the double yellow line running down the city's east-west cross streets. Anything reflective takes on a golden glow. And because of the light ricocheting off all of the windows that line the building facades, even shadows fill with a warm glow. The further east you are, the more dramatic the effect. For maximum effect you can also view the event from the Brooklyn waterfront, from which point the sun's rays blast through the streets surrounded by a darkening sky and silhouetted skyscrapers.

If you're on the west side of town facing east, the show is quite different. Instead of watching the sun you watch the reflections of the sun that bounce back after making direct hits on every window and reflective surface in it's path. Viewed from the New Jersey side of the Hudson River, the city sparkles as if it's on fire. But regardless of whether you view the event from the east side of town or the west side, it's an amazing display of light.

Along with Jennifer Diamond and David Brommer (of B&H Event Space fame) we spent a good deal of time answering questions such as "What's the best exposure?" "What focal length is best?" and "When's it gonna' happen?" to name a few. David got so sidetracked he forgot to shoot pictures with the twin-lens Blackbird he had dangling around his neck.

When the sun finally made its debut from behind the buildings lining the south side of the street it looked like the last scene in 'Close Encounters of the Third Kind' where everybody freezes in place while staring in wonder at the approaching spacecraft. The facial expressions of car, bus, and taxi drivers trying to get through all of this chaos was equally entertaining and bravura was on display even by New York standards. Old ladies were setting up tripods smack-dab in the middle of 34th Street while gesturing to on-coming traffic to get out of her way. And while buses usually got the right-of-way, cars and taxis were all but laughed-off in their efforts to navigate through the throngs.

And then it was over. Within a minute or two traffic was back to normal with everybody back on the sidewalk and the glow of the sun was replaced by the glow of hundreds of LCD screens playing back what were surely wonderful pictures.

And a splendid time was had by all.

To see more photos of our Manhattanhenge adventure click here.

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